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Jumbo review – unconventional romance makes for a thrilling ride

Portrait of a Lady on Fire breakout Noémie Merlant plays a young woman who falls in love with an amusement park attraction

The titular heartthrob at the centre of Jumbo is a broad, towering figure. He has a sturdy frame, strong limbs, and the innate ability to light up the screen. He is, of course, a Tilt-A-Whirl ride, but Zoé Wittock’s otherworldly romance is packed with so much sincerity and empathy that it succeeds in portraying Jumbo as more than just a hunk of metal.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire breakout Noémie Merlant stars as the other half of this unusual relationship. Jeanne is a shy and curious woman whose night shifts at a run-down Belgian theme park become covert dates with the amusement ride that’s caught her eye. The first flirtations between the two are imbued with almost child-like wonder. Jumbo communicates by blinking his lights, and at one point, in an act of mechanical chivalry, even lowers his arm to the ground to save Jeanne from an accident.

Jeanne and Jumbo's interactions are delightfully (and surprisingly) romantic. We’re never told if the ride is actually responding or if all this stems from somewhere in Jeanne’s imagination. Yet it remains so downright magical to watch you’re inclined to believe that the feelings between the pair are really mutual.

With a subject as strange and unexplored as objectophilia, Jeanne’s attraction could’ve so easily been exploited for laughs. But Wittock is incredibly earnest when it comes to understanding this relationship. Most people will approach this film with a morbid fascination: how do you even shoot something this? When their relationship does progress to the physical, it takes a turn to the surreal in an erotic display of bodies and motor oil. By all accounts, Wittock presents Jumbo as a standard romance – just with a splash of mechanical fluids.

Above all, though, this is a film about acceptance. Jeanne’s mother, who she still lives with, is appalled by her daughter’s crush. In their charged arguments, the true message of the film crystallises: what do you do when your children grow up to be different from your expectations? It's also here that Jumbo begins to run out of steam. As it commits to its message of love and acceptance, the film tacks on some clumsy confrontations. A group of brash, juvenile bullies sticks out as a particularly unnecessary inclusion.

Jumbo struggles to find a balance between its duelling fantastical and grounded elements, but Merlant capably anchors both with a sense of wide-eyed curiosity. Just witnessing this actress seducing a metal structure with the same romantic intensity she conveyed in Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece makes for its own thrilling ride.

Jumbo was screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2021. It hits UK cinemas on 9 July.

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